The story behind Bill Hornbuckle’s rise to the pinnacle of the hospitality industry is an interesting, even inspiring one. But it’s not complicated: The president and COO of MGM Resorts made it the old-fashioned way — by working his way up.
It was a steady and often unglamorous climb, one that involved years of saying “yes” to changing assignments, undesirable shifts, and incremental promotions.
“I was a room service attendant and a busboy at the Jockey Club,” Hornbuckle recalled. “I worked in banquets at the old MGM. My first real job — where I ended up in a suit — was as an assistant hotel manager at the Flamingo Hilton working six days a week.”
The hospitality bug struck Hornbuckle at an early age — 18 to be exact, when he got his first industry gig as a bartender in his home state of Connecticut, where at the time the legal drinking age was 18. He says he enjoyed the fast pace of the service environment but quickly recognized the hospitality scene in Connecticut “wasn’t really happening.” With a few community college credits under his belt, Hornbuckle began inquiring about an up-and-coming school out West—what was then called the “Hotel School” at UNLV.
Four weeks later, Hornbuckle and his two friends were driving out to Vegas — a destination they almost didn’t make. “I had paid $100 for a station wagon,” Hornbuckle recalled. “The car died before we got out of Connecticut. A friend’s dad loaned us his van … so that’s how we got to Vegas.”
Fast-forward a few years and Hornbuckle was a UNLV graduate and well on his well way to becoming one of the college's greatest success stories, ascending through the ranks at Mirage Resorts, Caesars Palace, and then MGM.
“Bill is a great example of someone who really took what he learned in school and ran with it in the industry,” said Hospitality College Dean Stowe Shoemaker. “Others would have been content to stay where they were, but Bill kept on pushing.”
It’s a success story that doesn’t surprise Cindy Kiser Murphey, a fellow Hospitality College grad (’80 BS and ’95 MS) who is the president and COO of New York-New York.
“When Bill has a vision, he holds onto it, works incredibly hard to make it come to life, and inevitably makes it better,” said Kiser Murphey.
Do Something Better
Hornbuckle’s history of pushing the envelope may partially explain his skyrocket to success, but it’s his commitment to helping others (particularly students) that truly sets him apart. That commitment is one of the reasons Hornbuckle was chosen as the Hospitality College’s 2019 Industry Leader of the Year.
Among his numerous philanthropic efforts, Hornbuckle and his wife, Wendy, established an endowed scholarship fund in 2004 to provide much-needed financial support to Nevada-based students pursuing a hospitality degree at UNLV.
It was a logical decision for the UNLV alum and 40-year veteran of the hotel gaming industry. But Hornbuckle’s inspiration to create the scholarship stemmed from something even more personal. “I was poor when I was in Catholic high school,” Hornbuckle recalled. “And I didn’t know it but my parents weren’t paying tuition. They couldn’t afford it. But the school kept me on for three-and-a-half years. Ten years later, I finally found out and said, ‘I want to pay it back.’ The administrator of the school said, ‘Don’t pay it back; do something better. Set up a fund.’ So I paid for other kids to go to school, and it was meaningful.”
That legacy of giving is both meaningful and powerful for the recipients of the Hornbuckle Family Scholarship at UNLV. Some of the latest scholarship beneficiaries got the opportunity to meet with the MGM exec in November at his corporate office in the Bellagio Hotel. It was a rare opportunity for the students to talk shop with an industry icon and share the impact of the scholarship directly with their donor.
“It’s an incredibly fulfilling feeling to know that someone I had never met believes in me,” sophomore Meagan Taylor said. “A few weeks ago, we were doing mock interviews for a class and I was incredibly nervous. It dawned on me that the president of the MGM believed in me enough to invest in me … which was a real confidence booster.”
Before their visit ended, Hornbuckle thanked the students, wished them well, and left them with one last piece of advice: “The only thing that I would ask of you is that you remember this. Some day when you are in the position to do so, give back to someone else.”